Symphony of sandstone

, Culture

A cluster of more than 200 temples, Bateshwar is Morena’s must-visit hidden secret

Words: Akanksha Dureja

Some small towns have a larger-than-life history; Morena in Madhya Pradesh fits that bill perfectly. Tucked between Gwalior and Agra, Morena falls on the infamous Chambal belt where the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh share borders. Chambal was once a battleground for dacoits and still finds a place in many a Bollywood flicks. Many of us also remember Morena as the place of origin of gajak, a much-favoured winter delicacy made of sesame seeds or peanuts and jaggery. But there is more to this destination than dacoits, encounters, and the sweetness of gajak that still lingers on.

unplanned adventure

While returning to New Delhi from a trip to Gwalior, I was astonished to read about the Bateshwar temples on the Internet. I took a short detour from our intended route, hoping to get a glimpse of history beneath the stone carvings of Bateshwar. This unplanned adventure became the highlight of that road trip and one of the best detours I have ever taken.

An old, broken road took us off the highway and into what initially seemed to be a mistake. The condition of that road kept deteriorating until we were surrounded by mustard fields in full bloom. The yellow of the sun, in perfect harmony with that of the mustard flowers, with a village hut in the background and curious kids running after a lone car; it was as if we were cherry-picked from the mad rush of highway vehicles and put into a Bollywood flick. Braving that road for around 12 km and wondering how locals manage with such poor infrastructure, we reached our destination.

Group of Temples

Bateshwar is a group of more than 200 sandstone temples from 750–800 CE. As old as history itself, these temples were damaged around the 13th century. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has done a commendable job of reconstructing these temples from the debris, as if a phoenix has risen from its ashes. Archaeologist KK Muhammad undertook this mammoth task, and it was his passion and faith that drove such an amazing story of restoration. He fought a gruelling battle, convincing dacoits to allow the restoration work, fighting the mining mafia as well as endlessly waiting for government funds. Reconstruction took time and effort, but what stands today is a work of art that only a passionate artist could dream of recreating.

Time stopped when we entered the temple complex, staring at broken pieces of history. There stood the first of many temples, perched on a hillock, restored to its former glory. Sculptures on the temple walls left us spellbound and prepared us for the grandeur that awaited inside. The group of temples at Bateshwar reminded me that faith can’t be destroyed. It springs up subsequently with a greater force, only more beautiful in its ruined form.

Even though those stones couldn’t speak, they narrated a thousand tales from the times when they were more than just ruins. The artwork got more and more intricate as we moved inward, and the sanctum sanctorum was most definitely an artist’s masterpiece.

From this ancient temple on the hill, one could spot the plains of Chambal for as far as the eye could see. The view was mesmerising and the temple structure formed an intriguing gateway to the group of Shiva temples nearby. A short walk led us to one of the most imposing structures I have ever seen. My jaw dropped, wondering about the ancient builders who created such a masterpiece.

Exploring the Ruins

Wandering around the ruins that still remain (restoration work stopped in 2013 because of lack of funds), I realised that archaeologist Muhammad’s work was even more arduous than building these temples from scratch. Locating the pieces of art in a massive pile of rubble, fitting them together like a huge jigsaw puzzle, not knowing whether the remaining pieces survived the test of time, and then trying to rebuild a lost glory; passion makes you do the unthinkable, and everything else just falls in place, like the scattered pieces of faith resonating from the fragmented sandstone rubble.

A shivlinga resides in each of these small temples, which overlook the main sanctum located in one of the biggest temples in the complex. Locals have reclaimed this one as traces of flowers and incense sticks can be found scattered around. After being abandoned for centuries, this temple seemed to be returning to life. Faith, as they say, lives on.

Words won’t be enough to narrate the ASI’s commendable work, so I will let the pictures speak for themself. At the Bateshwar temples, I realised that not all ruins are dead; some breed passionate survival stories and recreate history. I stared at the temples for a long time, thinking deeply about how lucky I was in finding this place and experiencing these stones narrating so many tales that I am yet to comprehend.

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